This TV drama combined the interest in highschool sports and the relationships that develop in the teen years – all with the overlaying influence of living in urban Chicago.
Starring Ken Howard, The White Shadow was the highschool drama that was the first ensemble cast featuring mainly African-American actors.
Debuting in 1978 on CBS, The White Shadow is about Ken Reeves (Howard) a former NBA player, forced to retire because of a knee injury after playing for the Chicago Bulls.
Becoming the coach of Chicago Carver Highschool, Reeves is a maverick, a fave of the principal and definitely wanting his players to be winners on the team and in their lives. However the vice principal, Sybil Buchanan, believes him to be arrogant and not always with the team’s best interests at heart.
The Carver players were typical students – some smarter than others, some facing harder home life than others. Their unique mix of dealing with the pressures of teen life, drugs, sex, responsibility and the understanding of loyalty is the spark of this drama. Players went through many life-changing experiences, showing the reality of American urban life, especially for an inner city teen boy.
Although moments of humour were not the predominating factor, the one significant team-building activity that the players always undertake is singing in the shower. Each episode, the team would harmonize R&B songs of the 1950s and 1960s – featuring songs such as My Girl, Duke of Earl, A Teenager in Love, Under the Boardwalk and Twist and Shout. The songs were performed by the actors and were not lypsynched.
I became a fan of the show as what I thought highschool might be like. I had already seen how the sports teams were treated a little differently and the camraderie that was created amongst boys. I appreciated the unique role of the coach, who is not a teacher, versus the vice-principal, who is both teacher and administrator, since I was the child of a teacher, and understood the conflicts that would arise between the two.
Although only on the air for three seasons, The White Shadow opened the door to the possibility of increasing the presence of African-American actors on tv. Like the decade it started in, The White Shadow proved to change the status quo, and leave fans wanting more.